Hi, I’m angry, not pretending I’m not angry, and I warn you that this will be long and probably messy, especially if you’re white (and I’m talking primarily to my fellow white readers, here, and coming from a deep, uncomfortable acknowledgment that my view is limited and personal). It will have good resources for you, lots of reading lists, and you also might not like reading everything in here. Welcome to the club. I’ve done a lot of reading that hurt me, too.
It’s about ten years since I’ve moved to the USA. I came for my PhD program. I came as a US citizen, from Canada, where I’m a Canadian citizen. I’m lucky to have dual-citizenship, and I know it. Not a year of my life has passed without flitting back and forth across that easygoing border as though it didn’t exist to me. So it was easy for me to move to Cambridge, MA, a town I’ve always known and loved, from Toronto, right?
That’s what I thought. I thought it was going to be a breeze.
I was very, very wrong. And I was also very, very right.
I was right because I had everything on my side: citizenship, good fortune, a good PhD advisor and department, a wonderful roommate (WITH A CAT) (the cat’s name was Pandora and she was beautiful) and so on.
I also had the good fortune to have good healthcare!
“Wait, what?” I thought, when I was told that. “Of course I have healthcare.” That was my Canadian upbringing thinking. “Of course I have healthcare.” Wake up, Deborah, you’re in the USA now. I thought it was funny, at first.
Folks, I did not have easy access to healthcare throughout my entire PhD. I had a very specific number of years allocated for healthcare. But I had a baby and things dragged on– guess what? The USA does not have universal healthcare. (NB: This was not my department’s fault. I will NEVER say a nasty word about ANYONE at my department, especially my advisor who backed me up and helped me out and got me through everything.) But it was a nasty thing to wake up to with a child, no time, expensive childcare… and no universal healthcare.
What I had was a wonderful husband and a wonderful family and a wonderful background and I fervently and sincerely wonder, sick in my heart, what people without that high level of privilege did.
Because, yes, you might not like that word but: I AM PRIVILEGED. I WAS privileged, I always HAVE BEEN privileged.
And even with all my privilege? I came to the USA, as a citizen of the USA, from Canada– and people, I tell no lie, gave me hell for it. Not Canadians. Americans. Please read this remembering that I’m a white woman from Canada. Then try to think over to everyone in the USA who is not a white woman from Canada, because that’s where I’m headed. These are all pretty close to verbatim, I’m 99.9% sure, because they’re seared in my memory because hearing these things was painful. Some were said by friends of mine or friends of my husband.
“In a war between Canada and the USA, which side would you pick?”
“Are you really loyal to the USA?”
“You’re from Canada? Oh, I’m so sorry.”
My favourite: “A Canadian? Oh, a communist.” (After which he walked away.)
So I got the message early: You’re not one of us.
Then 2016 came along. (That’s right. All of that was BEFORE 2016, so… anyone thinking that America went bad after 2016? Sorry to break it to you: there have been problems here for a while.)
You might remember my posts after November 2016. There aren’t too many, but they highlighted Bryan Collier’s I, Too, Am America , for example. I was pretty upset.
That’s when I started to realize: they might be saying I’m not “one of us,” but… maybe this is my problem, too? I began to think: well, I am “one of us.” I got married in Maryland. To an American. I vote in the USA. I get to live here without fighting to be allowed to… maybe I really am American, and, if so, maybe I need to fight its battles, too. Maybe (this was uncomfortable) maybe I’m… not to blame, but nevertheless responsible for some of these deep, systemic problems.
My husband and I took our daughter to her first protest (against the Muslim ban, remember that…?) and I was proud to do so and bitterly upset that it felt necessary. I’m skipping a lot, but when my daughter was frightened about family separation at the border I sat with her, talked, and we donated to RAICES, wrote cards to welcome families to the border, and I helped her write a letter to our senator. We read The Wall.
There’s something missing. A big something. And I began to feel it, deep and uncomfortable, after COVID-19 struck and the killing of George Floyd ignited protests in all 50 states and beyond.
I did read a lot of books by Black creators, both by myself and with her. I read a lot of articles that challenged me. I did private thinking, and shared actions with her.
But I never said the word “racist” to my daughter. Ever.
As I said, then the protests started. At first I thought, cowardly, “It’s good we’re at home during this pandemic. My daughter won’t be scared!” Then I remembered something, or was reminded, or both: Martin Luther King stood up to including kids in protests. And I was seeing children on their parents’ shoulders in photos of peaceful protesters at these protests. I remember, vividly, closing a tab quickly when a police officer was pointing a weapon at a tall Black man with a girl on his shoulders who couldn’t have been more than 3 years old, I estimate. I don’t have the link to show you because, shamefully, I closed it and didn’t save it. You can disbelieve me if you like.
Personal reasons I don’t choose to share prevented me from going to any protest in Boston. But I was ashamed to think that I was too cowardly to shake my daughter’s worldview, to let her think, maybe, that Martin Luther King’s fight was over and he’d won?
So one day I sat down with her and started the conversation. (I want to thank the many friends who encouraged me to “just be direct”– I needed the encouragement, and I offer you the same encouragement.) I’m not going to go into what I said and how I said it– it worked, that’s all you need to know.
She wrote this on our wall. (If you’re really a white parent or educator looking to figure out how to talk to your kid about racism for the first time, read the resources below or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org but I don’t want to derail this post here. Above all: DO NOT ask Black authors or educators to do that work for you when they’re already doing so much and facing so much right now. Bother me, read freely available resources, but do not bother them.)
She might only be 6 years old, but she was ready. I was proud of her, upset with myself for being too afraid to upset her. She has since restarted the conversation with me, or I’ve offered further stories. On Breonna Taylor’s birthday I told her a bit about Breonna Taylor’s life, and said I was going to sign a petition to demand justice. She knew what I was talking about.
I have not done enough. I have benefited, all my life, from privilege. That doesn’t mean I ever hated Black people, or knowingly oppressed anyone. But I have benefited and I didn’t even have the courage to tell my daughter that racism was a thing, what it meant, or that it was still prevalent, while Black neighbours were being killed? Yes, I might still spell “neighbours” with a “u” but– I’ve lived in Boston for ten years now. It was time to take ownership of my responsibility.
That was my journey, these past ten years. I’m not saying it’s the end of a journey, I’m saying it’s the beginning of hard conversations, bitterly painful ones, and trying to do better, a little bit at a time. I have books I should have reviewed (about Indigenous experiences in Canada, about refugees, by Asian authors about Asian experiences in the USA, as well as books by Black creators) but I didn’t because I was busy or overwhelmed. I need to get to them, and I will, though not today.
Today I want to present resources to you, as a white parent or educator facing the task of talking to kids about race, racism, and anti-racism. I want to share book lists with you, not just about Black pain, but about joy and culture. Some books aren’t on the wonderful lists I’ve found, so I’ll add more links. Here goes:
Christian Robinson, in the midst of the pain of launching his picture book You Matter during a global pandemic and in the middle of this upsurge of protests and the backlash against those protests– he still sat down and helped put together a beautiful, thoughtful piece about talking to kids about racism. So with that in mind, please read it: Talking to Kids about Racism
I also want to point you to Christian Robinson’s beautiful tutorial on handling anger with kids, very relevant as they face the pain of racism: Anger
Maybe your kid needs support in understanding racism and anti-racism? There’s a reading list (on Twitter) over here. Note that the books cover a wide range of ages.
Support that reading not just by reading about racism or fighting it, but also just by introducing works from a range of Black creators (yes, and many others, but let’s stay on topic, please): This list is of 100 Black creators and their work. Let that number sink in and know that it’s not exhaustive, and it is diverse and covers a range of ages. No excuses.
One of my favourite literary agencies made a thread of new Black work, too: Some out now, some to pre-order.
I may be mistaken, but I think a few books I love are missing from those lists so I want to highlight them here:
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar wrote a wonderful, joyful, serious book on African-American inventors: What Color Is My World? This is a book my daughter loves so much that I frequently find it in her bed or… well, on the bathroom floor. All the best books end up read in every room of the house!
Rozane Orgill wrote a beautiful account of the contribution of Black voices to American culture in Jazz Day
In my view, this is a hopeful as well as a painful time. It’s a time for listening, reading, and learning as well as acting and protesting. And we have started to see real change on the horizon already. I intend to do my bit to support that change, starting here, starting now.
The word of the day for me is: RESPECT. Respect Black voices, Black anger, and Black time. And read, listen, think, process, and change.
If you have any questions, email me: email@example.com
One thought on “Black Lives Matter (reading and resources)”
“maybe I’m… not to blame, but nevertheless responsible” – a valuable and helpful distinction, I think. As a Kiwi, I don’t feel to blame (or necessarily responsible) for American racism, but I do feel responsible for countering racism wherever I encounter it, online or off. It wears a different face here in New Zealand, but it’s still here.
And of course, there’s the institutional/national/inter-national racism which says that if you’re not from this country, your well-being – or even continued existence – doesn’t really matter. The attitude which says that it’s not our problem you’re starving, as long as you starve on that side of the border (and we’ll make damn sure you don’t get to this side)… The attitude which seems to think that black lives only matter if they live in the West… I could go on. We all need to work on countering that racism, because it’s built into the way nations function, and those who challenge it are often labelled as crazy radicals, because we can’t imagine a world that doesn’t work that way.